Letting Go of Anger

 

Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?

Stuck Inside Myself

stuck insideMy guest blogger last week used those words—“stuck inside myself”—to describe her spiritual malaise, her inability to “remain calm and at peace” in the face of the bothersome details of every day life.

I too have always found mindfulness hard to come by.  But living in the moment has been particularly challenging during the past year, as I labored on the final stages of my first novel, A Fitting Place.  Reading Joan’s essay, it occurred to me that I was stuck inside myself because I had allowed my life to take a wrong turn.

Don’t get me wrong. I gloried in the hours I spent writing my novel.  I loved doing the research that added complexity and depth to my characters. I delighted in watching my protagonist Lindsey Chandler mature, often changing in ways I had not anticipated, and changed me as I watched. I relished the many hours of insightful discussion with my writing partner Carol Bodensteiner as she worked on her novel, Go Away Home.

But as I transitioned from writing to publishing and marketing, I seemed to get more and more stuck inside myself. I resented the seemingly endless hours I spent on social media, garnering information about titles and book blurbs and covers and printing options and, of course, marketing strategies. All of it was information I needed, but I did not find it interesting.  I grew grumpier with every passing day.

My stuck-ness got worse once my focus shifted full-time to marketing.  The ever-growing list of tasks made it almost impossible to enjoy riding a bike or reading a book—assuming I actually got on a bike or picked up a book. The fact is I hated doing virtually every task on that marketing list, and was well on the way to hating pretty much every routine task I had to do, no matter what the purpose.

My distaste for marketing goes back a long way, to age 7, when I was the only one in my troupe who failed to sell her quota of Girl Scout cookies. I hated asking strangers to do something for me.

That pattern followed me throughout my career in finance.  I have strong analytical skills and can explain complex ideas in simple terms.  My career moved forward because someone saw first-hand what I could do, and was willing to open doors on my behalf.  I rarely had to send out resumes, and never got so much as an interview when I did; indeed, only once in my life did I have to provide a resume before my first day on the job.

What I realized as I read Joan’s essay, was that in the last year I’ve gone from a life filled with something I love—writing—to spending my days doing something I hate.  I was reminded of the bit of banal but nonetheless good advice that I give to the MBA class I teach each spring: You are more likely to be satisfied and successful if you focus on doing what you love and what you’re good at.

For me, marketing a novel fails on both counts.

I don’t like the idea of being a quitter, particularly after spending six years on a novel I believe to be of interest in a world still battling gender stereotypes.  I love the emails and letters from readers who experience a “shiver of recognition” as they follow Lindsey on her emotional and psychological journey.  But sometimes being a quitter is exactly what you need to do.  I don’t want to spend these precious years doing something that I don’t like doing—and don’t have to do—just to prove a point.

I want to live in the moment.

What choices do you need to make in order to live in the moment, to not be stuck inside yourself?

 

A Fitting PlaceMindfulness is one of the key themes in my novel, and I continue to blog on other aspects of universal human relationships in the weeks to come. I welcome guest contributors whose own experiences offer another perspective.

If you’d like to contribute, please contact me at https://marycgottschalk.com/contact/

 

 

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Living In the Moment

Please welcome my guest today, Joan Z. Rough, an artist, writer and poet. In her comments below, Joan  muses about the challenge of living in the moment, a key theme in my recently released novel, A Fitting Place.

 

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right
                      now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant                                                    without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with                                                   the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this                                                                     way (which it won’t).”               James Baraz

living in the momentI love going out into my yard early in the morning to listen to the day awaken. With the first rays of sunlight, everything changes. Do you hear the woodpecker drumming on the old oak tree down the hill? There are baby crows nagging their parents to be quick about bringing them breakfast and the mockingbirds nesting in the cedar tree sound like they’re having an argument. Several robins are digging for worms and grubs not far from where I sit. A few houses down, a door slams and a child is whimpering. Traffic is picking up on Emmet Street, as commuters head off to work. The smell of eggs and bacon sizzling next door is making my stomach growl.  The huge expanse of deep blue sky is interrupted by a few fleecy clouds and the contrails of a jet liner going west.  Are the people on board sleeping or watching the landscape brighten with the sun below them?

Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it?  It’s a meditation. An awareness of the space I’m sitting in, an understanding of where I am. It’s being in the moment, at ease, and recognizing the world around me without making judgments about it. It’s called mindfulness.

I leave my seat on the patio to go back inside. The television is blaring the morning news.  Headlines on the front page of the paper scream out about bombings in Iraq, who beat whom in the primaries a few states away, and why the loser can’t be gracious about his or her tough luck.  Lilly, the cat rubs against my legs and the dogs follow my every move, wondering where breakfast is and why I’m being so poky. The teakettle is whistling and I can’t decide which tea to choose. I’m slightly annoyed that Bill forgot to empty the trash last night. It’s beginning to overflow. Where do I put the banana peels and the empty dog food can?

Mindfulness is slipping away.

A few hours later I leave the grocery store and get stuck in traffic.  There is an accident up the road and there is no way for me to turn around so I can go home another way. I’m worried that the ice cream I just bought as a special treat will melt.  I’m supposed to meet with the plumber in thirty minutes. The laundry sink is plugged up. Traffic is still not moving and I know I’m going to be late.  I look for my phone, but it’s dead. I forgot to charge it last night. My head starts to pound and I’m frustrated and pissed off that the day is not going well. My gut is filled with churning rocks and a few tears surface in the corners of my eyes. My head is filled with words like unfair, how can I, I have to, and I can’t. This is not what I had planned for my day.

I’m not only stuck in traffic, I’m stuck inside of myself, worrying about what is going to happen if I’m late to meet the plumber. I’ve forgotten that the sun is still shining.  I don’t notice the homeless man standing a few cars ahead of me holding a cardboard sign that reads, “Homeless and Hungry.  Please help. God Bless You.”  I can’t hear anything but the ranting going on in my head. I haven’t thought of or sent healing prayers to those who may have been injured in the accident just up the street. I rummage through my purse for something sweet to chew on, thinking it will calm my nerves.  I’m spinning off into a melt down and everything is about me, Me, and ME.

What happened to the profound peace, the sense of mindfulness, I felt earlier in the day?  Life doesn’t always provide us with a tree we can sit under and a chorus of birdsong.  More often than not, it sends us a traffic jam, a serious argument with a friend, a life changing injury, deadlines at work, and the overwhelming speed with which the world travels around us. It’s about what we label the good and the bad. It includes the beautiful melody sung by a wood thrush, as well as the gun shots I hear in the distance that send shivers up my spine.  It includes what I see, taste, smell, and touch. It includes my nasty thoughts about someone I’m not fond of and the delight I feel for the small boy I watch looking at a window display of toy trains. He is smiling and talking to himself.

I’m easily triggered by certain words, the way someone looks at me, or the sounds of a nearby siren.  As a small child I learned to be attuned to the way my father looked. When his eyes grew very dark, and the tone of his voice grew lower, I tried to make myself invisible.  When he hummed to himself and his eyes twinkled with mischief I knew everything was all right. When my mother had a glass of wine or a Manhattan in a restaurant at dinner, I knew we were in for trouble.  I was always anticipating or worrying about things I had done.

I’ve come late to mindfulness and find it extremely difficult to maintain. But when I manage to breathe deeply and pause before I react, being in the present moment keeps me in touch and in tune.  It’s a way to find ease in this crazy world and helps me to remain calm and at peace in whatever situation I find myself in.

The next time you find yourself worrying about tomorrow or something you said or did last week, take a deep breath, and be in the moment before getting caught up in the sticky web of life.

 

DSC_2659Joan Rough is an artist, poet, and writer of nonfiction.  Her poems have been published in a variety of journals, and are included in the anthology, Some Say Tomato, by Mariflo Stephens. Her first book, AUSTRALIAN LOCKER HOOKING: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. She is currently at work on her upcoming memoir, ME, MYSELF AND MOM, A Journey Through Love, Hate, and Healing.

You can follow Joan’s blog on her website at http://joanzrough.com

Twitter:      https://twitter.com/JoanZRough

Facebook:   www.facebook.com/joanz.rough

 

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Forgetting Memory – A Postscript

 

forgetting memories 1My last blog elicited comments from several readers on the impact of camera phones on memory.  Their comments were inspired by a recent NPR segment. After hearing it, I had to share it.

In case you missed it, last week’s blog examined the scientific rationale for the unreliability of memory—the physical and chemical reactions that create, store and modify what we recall of the events in our lives.

The NPR discussion suggested that using camera phones is actually impairing the formation of memory.

  • One hypothesis was offered by Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In her view, camera phone users are so focused on the process of picture-taking that they are not actually engaged in the event being photographed. Because they are not really observing the event that is being photographed, there is no information or data to go into memory.
  • A related hypothesis is based on research by psychologist Linda Henkel at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Henkel believes that when we “outsource” memory to a camera, we bypass the “mental cognitive processing” that allows us to actually remember.  In other words, we observe our surroundings, but the short-term memory is overwritten by new information before it can take root.

It does not follow that picture taking is bad. Rather, Henkel observes that “mindful” picture-taking—the sort that encourages you to examine specific details of the scene that you want to capture—does not impair memory formation.  And those pictures can provide “rich retrieval clues” when you go back and look at them.

Do you let your camera phone get in the way of memory formation?

Whether you do or not, check out the NPR segment. It’s fascinating. If by chance the NPR link doesn’t work, just Google npr overexposed camera phones.